Digital Technology and Museum Design

Because of the widespread use of digital media, museum visitors come with certain expectations. Everyone now has access to digital technology at their fingertips, literally. Mobile device access spans all kinds of demographics, including age and income levels. Museums will have to find new ways to tell their stories and engage visitors. Some worthwhile questions to consider include how content can be exhibited and delivered, who will be the audience and who the curator. In the past 20 years, museums faced pressures to innovate and adapt to changing user needs, in order to secure access to funding, attracting broader audiences.

Today’s audiences

In the midst of a growing number of Millennials and Generation Twitter, are an ageing population. Facing a broader audience today, there are diverse needs to address when we consider user experiences – those who expect digital interfaces and those who may prefer a more traditional approach. The relevance of social and cultural issues must be considered for today’s museum. Are past events still as significant or convey the same implications in future? Will visitors be interested in a war relic from a forgotten era?

The move towards digital affects how content is sourced, displayed and explored. Tablets and social media are already widely used. However, this is not considered innovative. The use of such technology is considered a basic requirement. Technology is moving by leaps and bounds in a very short time. As people become more accustomed to the daily use and empowerment of technology, museums must invent new ways to tell stories, to engage visitors. We can do this by involving visitors in the curation of content. Interaction is key to engagement. Current consumer trends shift towards collaborative consumption. In the same way, museums must employ new patterns of collaborative curation, giving the public greater control over content and experience. This will allow the visitors to reinvent the museum experience. As discussed in the chapter on “Flow”, people are intrinsically motivated to learn if the subject is challenging enough to sustain their interest.

Maker Movement

3D printing and rapid prototyping give us the ability to accurately build high-resolution reproductions of rare, and previously unavailable objects. In future, 3D printing offer visitors the option to bring home a piece of the museum, or create their own souvenirs.

3D printing offer visitors the option to create their own souvenirs. Source: (MakerBot, 2016)

Experience Design

Museums are curators of experiences, educators and a platform for cultural exploration. Extracurricular interactions like the dining experience, the coffee break and the ease of navigation through the space become commercial opportunities. The experience the museum crafts for visitors become of fundamental importance so that the visitor leaves the museum with crafted memories, experiences learned from interaction in the built environment.

Little Sun Exhibition at Tate Modern. Source: (Little Sun, 2016)

In a case study of the Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun exhibition at Tate Modern, visitors explored works of art in the dark using only solar powered lamps. The idea was to impress upon the visitors on the power of solar light to improve lives and to draw attention to the 1.6 billion people worldwide who live without access to electricity. They rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting, which is expensive and also a health hazard.


Source:  (, 2012)

In another case study, the Alter Bahnhof Video Walk was designed for the old train station in Kassel, Germany. Participants borrow an iPod and headphones from a booth. When they step into the exhibition, they step right into a world where reality and fiction meld in a disturbing way. They have stepped into a “physical cinema”. As they watch the small screen on the iPod, they also feel deeply because they are situated in the exact location of the footage. The immersive experience creates deeper memories for the participants. (Hargrave, J., Luebkeman, C., Sedgwick, A., 2013)

Immersive Experience Design

Today, it is a common sight to see people interacting with a screen all the time, rather than engaging with people around them. It will be a challenge, and a worthwhile one, to to create experiences which will be considered valuable and social. With the prevalence of smartphones, contact-less technology, augmented reality and face-recognition software, museums must create experiences that extend beyond the built museum itself.

We see that boundaries between cultural, social and entertainment institutions start to blur. Art fairs, museums, libraries, shops and restaurants can be found together, to provide a highly diversified user experience.

Virtual life is often criticized as encouraging antisocial behaviour, as people communicate through a device and not face to face. Will people still want a shared physical experience in future? Will we be conditioned to be more comfortable with interacting through digital interfaces rather than personal contact?

Because of the advent of mobile computing, museum content no longer need to be fixed to a certain point in space and time. Mobile exhibitions can enhance and enliven museums and will reach a wider demographic in more diverse regions. It has the potential to completely shift the notion of where museums can exist in the future.

In Cleveland Museum of Art, there is a kiosk entitled “Local Projects” which connects viewers to the museum’s content using technology. The technology fosters new interactions between visitors and the works the museum showcases. The visitor can interact and make a face or pose and then match it to works in the museum. (Hargrave, J., Luebkeman, C., Sedgwick, A., 2013)

Source: (, 2013)

In Victoria and Albert Museum, they collaborated with Sennheiser to deliver intuitive and seamless audio, from immersive 3D sound simulations to proximity triggered audio. They are currently researching on how they might use iBeacons to deliver multi-media content, or provide tours for visually impaired visitors or games for kids. Wearables like Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard are also in the pipeline. (Price, 2014)

Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie Exhibition. Source: (David Bowie Is: About The Exhibition – Victoria And Albert Museum, 2013)

Considerations in integrating Digital Technology into Museum Design

It is dangerous to assume that technology is the solution to everything. Too often, we end up with solutions looking for problems. There are many apps and websites created that end up as white elephants because they are not real solutions. We need to think about people first. The basics must be made right first. Sometimes it is as simple as making it easy for visitors to find your opening hours when on the move.

Innovating visitor experience doesn’t mean just embracing the newest technologies. It’s about doing better with what is existing. Ubiquitous channels like Twitter and Instagram can be used. (Price, 2014)

Augmented Reality and “Zero Learning Curve”

Meta 2 in development. A further exposition of this product is discussed in the chapter on “Augmented reality trends”. Source: (Meta, 2016)

Education + Entertainment is one key reason why museums exist. Edutainment. How can we craft the museum experience to provide this? We addressed “Flow” in the chapter on Understanding the Museum Visitor. Creating an environment for intrinsic learning must be a key consideration in our design of the museum experience. How about “Zero Learning Curve”? This is a goal coined by Florian Radke, senior director of marketing at Meta.

In a pilot study of 77 volunteers were given lego sets to complete, with one group following a set of 2D instructions on paper, another following static 3D holographic (Stereo Cue) instructions, and yet another given 3D holographic dynamic (Stereo and motion cues). They found that Dynamic 3D instructions enabled participants to more quickly complete each step. Participants using static 3D instructions and 2D paper instructions were much slower. This confirms the initial hypothesis that the use of both stereo and motion perceptual cues in AR instructions speeds up learning.

In a post lego building debrief, participants were surveyed on their perceptions of time, instruction helpfulness, and instruction awareness. They did not perceive any significant difference in terms of speed, helpfulness and effectiveness. It showed that participants were not consciously trying to make effort to speed up or slow down when using 3D or 2D instructions. When asked whether they thought AR was more effective than 2D instructions, 86% preferred AR instructions over paper instructions.

Participants’ feedback on AR and 2D instructions. Source: (Meta, 2016)

From a neuroscience perspective, instructions on paper and screens are limiting. 2D instructions, text or graphics, are hard to understand because they are flat representations of complex actions and 3D objects in a real world. 2D instructions on paper and screens are perceptually inefficient. It is harder for our brains to process and understand the actions that need to be taken. They also overload working memory. They are difficult to recall. The table below helps us understand how AR helps in overcoming the learning curve.


Source: (Meta, 2016)

This creates the case to use immersive technology like augmented reality in a creative way to help visitors learn with a “zero learning curve”.

A case study of augmented reality in the British Museum

In 2011, the British Museum’s digital learning team embarked on a plan to explore AR’s potential in museum education. There is a series of experimental projects that allowed them to push the boundaries of technology. There are four different types of interactions we could classify AR experiences in museums:

  1. Outdoor guides and explorers: These guides and explorers represent the majority of early AR applications which functioned outside museum walls. Streetmuseum (2010), Around Sydney (2009) are two applications that made use of AR to show how the streets of London and Sydney looked like in the past by superimposing old images when the user points the phone camera to a particular area. Both draw on archival photographs. These applications rely on GPS location.

    The StreetMuseum app. Source: (Museum Of London – Street Museum, 2016)
  1. Interpretive mediation: This second category contains some of the most creative and earliest uses of AR. In 2005, artist Hugo Barroso’s new media installation Pret-a-Porte at the National Centre for the Arts in Mexico City introduced wearable AR in the museum. Children stood in front of an AR mirror wearing simple garments and headgear superimposed over the children’s own clothes.
Source: (, 2012)
  1. New media art and sculpture: The V&A museum worked with Open Frameworks developers Hellicar & Lewis to create Mirror, Mirror (2009). It uses a webcam triggered by facial recognition to superimpose a mask composed of baroque elements from the museum’s collection over the user’s face. This algorithm was generative and each mask was unique. We could perhaps liken this technology to today’s Snapchat filters.
  1. Virtual exhibitions: Virtual tours allow for panoramas of the exhibition galleries without the user having to be at the museum in person. As the user “walks” through the space, he/she could select specific exhibit for larger image views, close up details and more information.

Filmmaker Matt Ogens and Huffpost RYOT united to document a journey that took a group of fifth graders to the Louvre museum without leaving the USA. Source: (Ogens, M.,, 2016)

In this very cool video, the teachers promised the children a trip to the Louvre. The day came, and they were brought to this gallery with empty frames. What a dampener.

It ain’t over till it’s over. What follows next is nothing short of amazing to this bunch of wide-eyed pupils (pun intended). Place your phone between you and the frame and the museum comes alive! In this Augmented Reality museum visit, you do not need expensive plane tickets to transport the class to the Louvre, pay for accommodation and food. It is a state-of-the-art technological learning experience in itself and one that the children will likely not forget, not for a long time to come.

Passport to the afterlife trail by the British Museum was launched in November 2011. It is a family trail where children use mobile phones provided by the museum to scan markers that displayed 3D models of ancient Egyptian objects. Virtual content is determined by markers rather than GPS location. Marker-based AR is ideal for museums where user’s location cannot be determined by GPS, wifi triangulation or other means.

The digital team in British Museum uses Junaio because of its low barrier to entry. They had investigated Layar, another cross platform browser, but rejected it because it did not support marker-based AR in 2010, where they began their work. They also considered Second Site, which runs on Sony PSPs, and the ARToolkit, an open source programming library. Low cost platforms for museums like Aurasma, Vuforia, and doPanic AR were also considered. Their overriding goal was to keep costs down, so they did in-house development with Junaio and spent the budget on 3D model creation and content.

User experience is important, thus, as they progress with AR development, they will move away from these platforms. Junaio and Layar both require users to navigate to their own interfaces before their applications can be launched. If these apps are to run smoothly on users’ own devices, then the experience must be as intuitive and efficient as native apps.

Moving forward, there are some things to get excited about with regards to AR in museum/exhibition design. AR has the potential to show things like buildings, room or massive objects like ships at scale using 3D models. As the users rotate their device, new elements of the 3D models are shown. They can then explore the models by zooming or tapping the screen for more information. Extinct animals can also be brought back to life with 3D animations. In fact, the Natural History Museum in London uses this technique in a multimedia theatre with early humans, dinosaurs, fish and other animals in the interactive film “Who do you think you really are”? (Mannion S., 2011)

Natural History Museum, London’s interactive film about evolution. Source: (Natural History Museum,, 2011)

  • Connected 3D Printing Solutions | Makerbot. N.p., 2016. 

  • “Little Sun”. Little Sun. N.p., 2016. Web. 

  • “David Bowie Is: About The Exhibition – Victoria And Albert Museum”. N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

  • “Alter Bahnhof Video Walk”. YouTube. N.p., 23 july 2012. Web. 

  • “Overall Montage, Gallery One/Cleveland Museum Of Art”. Vimeo. N.p., 2013. Web. 

  • Hargrave, J., Luebkeman, C., Sedgwick, A., ARUP Foresight + Research + Innovation. October 2013. Print.
  • Price, Kati. “How Can Technology Improve The Museum Experience?”. N.p., 2014. Web.
  • Meta, Team. “How Neuroscience-Based AR Can Improve Workplace Performance”. N.p., 2016. Web. 
  • Museum Of London – Street Museum”. N.p., 2016. 

  •, Beyond Cool: Making Mobile Augmented Reality Work For Museum Education | Museumsandtheweb.Com”. N.p., 2012. Web. 

  • Mannion, S., Museum Identity Ltd – High-Quality Conferences, Study Days, Publications, For Professionals. N.p., 2011. Web.

  • Ogens, M., “LA Louvre Augmented Reality Museum”. Vimeo. N.p., 2016. Web. 

  • Natural History Museum, Who Do You Think You Really Are? Trailer | Natural History Museum. YouTube. N.p., 16 March 2011. Web. 



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