Getting Playful: Technology Delivering Education by Stealth

The words ‘museum’ and ‘playfulness’ are all too often considered strangers to each other, why is this the case? Visitor attention spans decrease as quickly as cyberspace expands and in the dialogue about virtual and real-life engagement, the museum and heritage sector has traditionally been cautious. How then is it possible to recapture people’s attention, attract younger generations, distribute educational content far and wide whilst maintaining a focus on the unique objects and stories so carefully conserved and curated over centuries? In the first Emily Smith Associates blog post I am diving into Virtual and Augmented Reality, TikTok, and even Call of Duty, looking at the ways in which technology can be adapted in museums in order to deliver education by stealth.

Embracing experimentation with new technologies enables creative participation from audiences, gives audiences agency in experience, allows for multi-layered narratives and meets audiences on the platforms they are using in other areas of their lives. Not only is technology an invaluable educational asset, it is the cornerstone of most modern day entertainment. As such, it is the perfect tool for bringing playfulness into museums. The 3 main areas of digital audience engagement I’m particularly interested in highlighting are the visual, online and gamification.

Visual: Through the Looking Goggles
As far as visual technologies go, VR is the heavy hitter in this arena. First theorised in Stanley Weinbaum’s 1935 science fiction short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, it has undergone numerous advances since the first commercial goggles sold in 1985 to the latest Oculus headsets. One of the first, but still one of my favourite museum applications of VR was the 2015 David Attenborough’s First Life VR by Atlantic Productions for the Natural History Museum, London. VR proved a perfect vehicle to take visitors back some 500 million years into an environment that they could not otherwise experience, and its effectiveness was borne out by research that showed 85% of visitors had learned something new about the natural world.

Subsequent creative uses of this technology have included Curious Alice exhibition at the V&A, London. Participants were able to follow the white rabbit into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and experience shrinking, painting the roses red and interacting with the caterpillar, all in beautiful Victorian style 3D illustration. VR isn’t without its drawbacks (such as cost, maintenance, hygiene) but it does deliver one of the most immersive experiences out there and its potential for exploring new worlds is limitless.

Bridging the gap between the fantasy and real world is AR. Emily Smith Associates recently conducted a digital feasibility study for the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London in which the AR component scored very favourably amongst visitors and non-visitors in the market research. Family groups in particular, found it immediately absorbing and enjoyed its level of interaction. What I love about AR is that its already smartphone friendly and therefore (in contrast to VR) much more accessible for experiences that visitors can access using their own phones in the gallery and at home.

Recent imaginative uses of AR have included the Science Museum’s Wonderlab AR in collaboration with Niantic Lightship. Using the dynamic 3D map of the world that was originally developed for Pokemon Go, the app reveals scientific discoveries around you in real time, anchoring AR content in precise locations. This is an interesting and playful extension of the Museums remit outside of its four walls, truly enabling engagement in science wherever you are out in the world.

Projection mapping also has great potential for sparking play, especially with younger generations. In its simplest form, but no less effective for it I have witnessed children at Natural History Museums around the world engrossed in schools of fish projected on the floor like cats watching a David Attenborough bird documentary. At the Field Museum, Chicago a projection mapped lightshow draws visitor’s attention to details of the skeleton of their iconic T-rex Sue and reveals details of the creature’s past. Take this a step further into the current trend for immersive projection mapped experiences, a recent article by Artnet News revealed that in 2021 there were nearly 50 Van Gogh immersive experiences being delivered by 5 companies across 40 cities in the US!

Combining this technology with interactive touch or motion sensors, creative storytelling, and let the playfulness and audience appeal really kicks in.

Online: TikTok of the Town
During the pandemic, social media became an even more necessary tool for creators and institutions to deliver content to those who could not physically participate. This proved to be surprisingly effective for Museums who took a leap of faith and produced creative and authentic content. Practically overnight, Tim Pearce an unassuming mollusc curator from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History became a star on TikTok, a platform famously popular for 13 – 21 year olds. His snail joke videos attracted 1.5 million views – more people than visited all four institutions in the Carnegie Museums in a year.

Tim Pearce
Tim Pearce (C) Matt Unger, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Another example of this kind comes from the Prado Museum, Madrid, whose online tours during the pandemic became more important than ever to their viewership. As well as utilising Facebook and Instagram live streaming features, the Prado museum was also an early adopter of TikTok. Their playful use of these platforms allowed them to drastically expand their audience base and viewership. As Prado’s digital communication recently noted in an interview for Blooloop: “With TikTok, the algorithm changes everything. The videos get to, say, 15-year-olds, and suddenly they love your content, and it goes viral”. This makes me wonder, how else can the heritage sector utilise these platforms creatively to reach audiences at home and internationally?

Gamification: Aiming for Gaming
Gamification is perhaps the most obvious way of integrating playfulness into a museum goer’s visit. Embedding typical game style elements (such as point scoring, competition, tactics, and motor skills) into museum tours and exhibits can promote audience engagement and learning, especially around harder to digest subjects. One fine example of this is the pandemic table at London’s Science Museum, which walks the player through what causes a pandemic and what it takes to prevent one (concepts that aren’t necessarily intuitive!) delivered on a multiplayer digital table with animated retro graphics.

One new technology company who are bringing a gamified experience to museum tours is a client of mine, Gamiotics. Born out of a troupe of theatre professionals, Gamiotics is a browser-based platform that enables audiences to interact with content and gives them agency in the narrative experience. The platform incorporates options for branching narratives, contests and leader boards, quizzes, riddles and team challenges, all of which deliver audience engagement and an enhanced tour experience.

Generating a great amount of interest recently is the Imperial War Museum, London’s latest exhibition, War Games. The exhibition explores the history of gaming and examines the medium’s capacity for storytelling through video games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Worms, and Six Days in Fallujah. This is curated alongside war relics like the Xbox controller used to drive a tank, and personal objects that portray the humanitarian fall out as a result of warfare.

At its core, War Games asks what can video games tell us about conflict. It looks at how different game developers have portrayed conflict, how gaming technology is used in modern warfare and challenges visitors to think about the humanitarian repercussions of war.

Although demos of these games are available to play, I’m not sure I’d really consider this “gamification”. However, the Imperial War Museum is responding to the fact that gaming is a huge and growing industry. The exhibition proves that gaming is not only an extremely powerful medium for storytelling, but it is also a very effective and sobering tool for understanding choices and consequences. My visit coincided with a class of school children who in a sniper challenge where participants could shoot at a number of potential targets revealed their horror as one of their classmates shot a dog.

Whether it’s technology that transports us to imaginary other worlds, creative use of platforms that help reach outside the museum walls, or introducing more physical gaming elements into museum spaces; getting playful is about creative curation, facilitating visitor autonomy and using the digital assets at our fingertips to engage audiences in new ways. It’s all to play for – Game on!


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