December 15, 2020 • Sam Grabel
Few other sectors felt the effects of the 2020 global pandemic as acutely as museums and other in-person experiences. By extension, our 2020 predictions for that area, shared in “Looking Ahead: The Future of Exhibits and Experiences,” were upended in the first few months of the year. So we decided to go back to Director of Design Rod Vera and Director of Production Damion Boulden and ask them to reflect on things that did not go as predicted and offer their best guesses for what is to come.
HF: How has the pandemic impacted museums and exhibits?
Rod: People are spooked. There is some concern about contaminated surfaces, but it’s more about being in a crowd of people, like in an elevator, and not having a mask, or about people having gatherings.
What I did notice when I went to some exhibits last week is that people are touching things, but some of the previously available tactile things have been taken away. Museums presumably are putting them in the back of house until later. There are some touch screens, because they’re not going to pull the monitors off the wall. There are hand sanitizers everywhere, for instance, where there’s a bench, they’ll have a hand sanitizer station there. They’re intermingled into the exhibit, which is smart because people can keep cleaning their hands as they go after they touch something. I observed that people are still out and about. They’re just really cautious, and they stay away from other people.
Damion: The main thing that has happened is we’ve had to go back and rethink how we’re applying exhibit technology. We’re having to re-examine how some of our technology works to reduce, eliminate or provide alternate solutions to touching touch screens—like we outlined in our “Guide to the Fear of Touch.” We’ve done a lot of work trying to recalibrate how we interact with our exhibits, both ones that we’ve already done and also ones that are upcoming. One of the things that we are leaning toward, in addition to gesture control and things like that, is implementing solutions that utilize a user’s personal mobile device. They can scan a QR code, and then using the touch pad on their mobile device, use that to interact with the screen that’s in front of them without actually touching it. There’s comfort in using your own screen.
HF: Building on that, are there any technologies that we thought were promising that are now ineffective? What about others that were accelerated by the pandemic?
Damion: We’re not introducing some of the things that, after research, we realized that people weren’t going to do. Like voice control—you’re not going to yell like you would at Siri or Alexa or anything else in a crowded area, because it’s awkward. Same with a lot of gesture control. People get embarrassed because they’re doing things that might be considered kind of awkward in front of other folks. Nobody’s talking about virtual reality this year, certainly since COVID ramped up. It’s not something anybody’s considering because there’s too much communal hardware that’s wearable. It’s kind of clunky to begin with, and then you add on the idea of getting a disease. It’s not going to happen.
Rod: The idea of your phone becoming a remote control for a whole exhibit makes sense. Some may use UV light to disinfect communal objects, but I think that’s kind of a hard sell, too, because there’s the human factor. Do you trust the fact that whoever’s in charge of cleaning these things is actually cleaning them regularly or properly? I think that’s a challenge, certainly, but there are other solutions. Some places are handing out disposable styluses for continued use of touch screens. Styluses and things like that are inexpensive and still allow users to manually manipulate something that places have already spent the money on. This is a low-cost option to still get use out of an investment.
Some museums have put full virtual museums on their websites. They are trying to come up with some ways of enticing visitors to actually come to the physical place after it opens post-COVID. They’re rethinking how they do their websites, so you can get a little taste of it while you’re waiting.
HF: With all of these changes, what is in our crystal ball for 2021? Will in-person edutainment come back?
Rod: I think it will but certainly not until the latter half of the year. Maybe more people are bringing in other technologies; maybe more museums are starting to implement some of the other things that we’ve talked about. I don’t know if it will be exactly how it was in 2019, but I do think there will be a return to normalcy.
For corporate exhibits, it will be based on how work from home and leasing and real estate does in general. This whole thing has really shifted toward reducing overhead costs. So that’s going to definitely have an impact on office installations. We are beginning to see demand for alternative ways to display history, beyond a lobby exhibit. So we’ll see where that ends up in 2021.
Damion: I predict reduced in-person capacities and a big push for cleanliness protocols. I also think there’s a good six or so more months before things even begin to look in the direction of normal. But my hope is that in the latter half of 2021 as more technologies are rolled out, this will become like the next sort of a gold rush in technology, of finding other solutions to allow people to interact with content.
As those solutions get cheaper, more museums—the ones that managed to survive over the course of this year as nonprofits—will start to implement them and start to bring back people, but it’s going to take time.
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