institution: Canada Science and Technology Museum
category: Exhibition Media or Experience
On November 17, 2017, the Canada Science and Technology Museum reopened after a three-year closure. Although the project was a huge undertaking given the scope and timeline—demolition, rebuild, exhibition development and installation in little more than two years— a completely new building and all new exhibitions meant we were literally able to start from the ground up.
To guide the exhibition development part of the project, we worked in collaboration with Aldrichpears Associates Ltd. to create an Interpretive Masterplan during the early stages of the renewal process. A substantial portion of the plan addressed a digital strategy. The emphasis was to use digital elements to enhance visitor experience—to augment objects and concepts, to add to visitors’ understanding, to engage visitors in varied ways—not to overshadow or replace “real” experiences or objects or to detract from the social aspect of museum visits. Potential digital experiences were identified for each of the proposed galleries, and the strategy also flagged the need for digital elements within the exhibitions to rightfully reflect the fact that the Museum itself is an institution of science and technology literacy.
Armed with this digital strategy, and with our interpretive goals, Accessibility Standards, and a list of “experience types” as our framework, we set out to weave digital experiences throughout the new museum in a purposeful way. We asked “What do people remember about their visit to a museum?” The answer? Experiences. The next question was how to use digital technologies to achieve these experiences.
Throughout the exhibition development process, extensive public consultations and visitor testing helped guide and shape what we ultimately created and presented in the Museum. Visitors emphasized their love of the museum’s collection, their enjoyment of hands-on activities, their memories of iconic objects or demonstrations, and their desire to see more technology in the museum, but not at the expense of human interaction.
Knowing this, we looked at how to best use digital technologies to meet visitor needs and fulfill our mandate.
Technology as a tool, not the goal
Digital technologies are tools to enhance experiences. The interactives in the museum leverage these tools (projections, in-floor screens, tracking cameras, etc.) to help visitors to better understand difficult concepts, see how something works, or interact with objects too fragile to touch. Digital “layers” are easily triggered by visitors in many cases, removing barriers to use.
By integrating digital elements into “traditional” museum displays, we were able to give visitors access to our collection in ways that they would not have been able to otherwise. In other instances, these digital technologies helped guide visitors through immersive spaces to feel as if they were experiencing the real thing. Other interactives leverage digital technologies to encourage social interaction and even allow for collaboration and take-aways.
Examples of Digital Interactives in the Renewed Museum
Northern Lights Art & Sound Installation
The visit begins in the main lobby, where an interactive art installation of lights and custom soundscapes invites visitors to touch glowing pillars. Each pillar touch triggers a sound and causes the lights to change and flicker, resembling the Northern Lights. Each pillar’s sound works harmoniously with the others to create an immersive soundscape. This is achieved by proximity sensors connected a program which controls the LED lighting and audio files.
The center of the Canada Science and Technology Museum is Artifact Alley, a corridor showcasing the beauty of our collections through eight huge showcases of related artifacts. The focus here was on the aesthetic, but we used other senses to pull visitors in and give them a memorable experience.
The “Winter” case, focusing on the technologies used to make living in a cold climate possible (sleds, skates, etc.), features an arctic landscape interactive niche. When a visitor enters the niche, fans blow cool air, the sound of wind begins, and embedded floor screens, appearing to be icy water, present a CG seal popping up under the visitor’s feet.
Here, the visitor is the experimenter. They triggered the experience, but how? Children jump in an out, and watch for the seal, wondering “How does this work? What am I doing to make that happen?”
Pop-up science shows visitors that science can be found in their everyday lives, in unexpected places. It is a discovery experience, with no intended pathway, visitors choose what they are interested in. Images of everyday scenes (a ballet dancer on a stage, kids on a playground, hockey players on ice, etc.) are overlaid with scientific “pop-ups”, allowing visitors to discover why ice is slippery, the physics of a pirouette, or the difference between radar and sonar on a boat. The photos and information are changed regularly using a content management system, to cater to repeat visitors.
Physical Activity Meets Digital Feedback
A number of interactives gamify physical activities, encouraging visitors to use real movements to trigger onscreen actions. Some of these provide a way to explore the collection and learn about objects, as is the case with the “Bike Fail” interactive where riders can see why a Safety Bicycle always wins the race. Humour (high wheeler bike faceplants, for example), and real obstacles (rocks and narrow pathways) show the superiority of the modern bike design over previous attempts.
Zooom is a dedicated children’s area featuring many different types of interactive activities. This space is a mix of mechanical, digital and purely physical hands-on learning. One of the main features is a large screen, where children change the images by peddling bicycles.
While we do make use of touchscreens as media players and visual search engines, we have also developed several quiz-style games and an “Avatar” generating experience delivered via touchscreen to compliment exhibit content. These interactives let visitors make use of parts of the collection to complete a task and encourage them to think about things in a different way. You can see an example here.
In the new Sound exhibit, visitors are encouraged to create a “soundscape” by activating spots on the floor with their bodies. Movement is tracked with a projector, and different spots activate different musical and ambient tracks. More people means a richer sound.
Throughout the museum, immersive experiences are used to allow visitors to feel as though they have stepped into a new environment. For example, in the energy-focused From Earth To Us exhibit, visitors can enter a large animated glacier, where the inside becomes a theatre. Videos on climate change and its impact on ice and the arctic play on-screen, and visitors are invited to sit and watch without the distractions of the surrounding exhibit.
In partnership with Queen’s University’s mining department, we have brought real-world 3D mine imaging software to the museum floor. 3D scanning generates data-rich maps of mines that can be viewed on a screen or through virtual reality, making planning and inspection safer and easier. Near real-time 3D modelling and rapid data collection let mining companies monitor hidden surfaces, plan for difficult extractions, and inspect hazardous areas without risking human lives.
Hidden Worlds Magic Book & Object Theatre
The Magic Book is part of an ambient space in the Hidden Worlds exhibition space, focusing on the ocean. The book—a projector activated animated experience where visitors can turn pages and see new interactive content, allows visitors to discover photographs and video of the objects on-display around them. For example, historic pictures of the batfish (a torpedo-like device towed from a ship to survey ocean currents, on display in the museum) are animated to show how the device was launched.
As the CSTM just reopened its doors in November 2017, formal evaluations have not yet occurred. Reviews across both traditional print and social media (over 500 reviews on Facebook and over 600 on Google Reviews, both rating above 4 out of 5) are overwhelmingly positive and, as noted below, attendance to date has far surpassed expectations. A particular point of pride, the CSTM is the first museum to receive the highest level of accessibility accreditation in Canada from the Rick Hansen Foundation.
Impact on visitor numbers
To date, the renewed CSTM has recorded over 140,000 visits, nearly four times the previous average for the months of November, December, and January.