As part of our Looking Ahead series, surveying where we’ve been over the past decade and where we might be going in the next one, Sam Grabel sat down with History Factory’s director of production, Damion Boulden, and Rod Vera, our new director of design. Together, the two have 40 years of experience in exhibit design and fabrication. 

Discuss how exhibits have changed over the past five to 10 years.

This is a photograph of the exhibit USAA created to showcase it's history. There are two sections: before 2003 and 2003-today.

Damion Boulden: There’s always been an interest in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), with which you can do some really amazing things. I think AR might have a bit more of an application in exhibits right now. With VR, even though the ideas are there and the software’s there, the hardware interface makes that a challenge.

Over the past several years, museums have been really pushing to try to introduce more technology: In the past, interactives were typically more video based or minimally interactive. For museums that are newer, like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture or the Spy Museum, there’s really a push to bring in technology as a way to share stories and to collect data.

I also think that museums are trying to get away from more of a static display. “Deep Time,” which is the new dinosaur exhibit hall within Smithsonian, certainly has displays of dinosaur bones, as you would expect. But, instead of having those bones in a static pose, they are composed in scenes to tell a story. In addition, they’re also trying to tie in more tactile things, so visitors have the ability to touch some of the bones and other artifacts, and the ability to see and use more mechanical interactives. They’re tying them back in to show how skeletons and musculature might have functioned as well as supplementing the digital experience.

Rod Vera: Museums started out as just displaying collections inside cases and with interpretation interspersed within that. A lot of label text and captions with occasional big graphics.

It’s now evolved to where it’s reached one of the highest points of technology, where you have these completely immersive projection spaces. For instance, there are companies like teamLab in Japan, where you walk in and the whole museum is a totally immersive series of projections—even responding to your presence as a visitor. So, it’s gone up pretty far, as far as technology. It’s moved from completely physical to fully digital at a very fast pace.

This is a timelapse photo of the custom exhibit Penske created to showcase their company history. Visitors can clearly see their tagline, which is 'Every Mile a Milestone'.

DB: There’s a constant push for introducing technology. But I also feel that with the continued push of technology, there’s also a desire for things to go back to the tactile—things you can touch and experience with senses beyond sight. That’s something that technology won’t easily be able to provide you, especially in a quick-turnaround setting with large crowds. For instance, with VR, you might be placed into an immersive world, but you can’t interact with it in a way that’s really tactile or sense-based—beyond sight. So, I think going forward—in addition to continuing to refine what you can do with augmented and virtual reality to make it more easily consumable—there’s also going to be a push to make things more experiential, more tactile and more multi-sensory as well, because it’s just missing in a digital realm.

The Spy Museum is a really interesting example of how they’ve tried to tie the experience into technology using a holistic approach. And that’s something that I think other exhibits are trying to do or are reaching for, but a lot of folks are gun-shy around that because of that cost outlay and concerns over durability or downtime.

RV: We’ve already hit that really impressive spot in terms of technology—like I talked about with teamLab. But, ironically, a lot of people go to museums to get away from technology and screens—to get away from light in your eyes. Parents, especially, want their kids to get out and start reading things not on screens, touching things, exploring and learning. A museum is an alternate form of learning.

So, I actually think that the future of museums lies in more creative and innovative ways to have the integration of different mediums and technology. The integration of creative services enables really unique experiences when done well. When I worked on the Spy Museum, we were constantly pushing to integrate the talents of the team while integrating lots of different mediums and experiences, and packaging it to deliver an engaging and highly memorable experience. We were trying to tell stories in the most memorable way possible.

At the end of the day, going to a museum is experiencing and learning while being exposed to new ideas. You’re learning in ways you can’t learn in a classroom. But I think the winning recipe is learning while you’re being entertained. No one goes to a museum just to learn. You’re going to bore people—especially young kids. They must also be entertained.

Exhibits always will be a mixture of mediums, creative disciplines and messages. In the future, they will need to continue to find impressive ways to combine these elements in new and exciting ways, with the ultimate goal of leaving the visitor feeling transported, spiritually moved, educated and informed in ways they would never be with one medium alone. And of course, they must leave a lasting impression that adds value to their life.

Is there anything that you’re particularly excited about that is not currently possible?

This is a photo of American Electric Power's interactive display and exhibit. Visitors can browse through the company's history.

DB: Can we get the Star Trek Holodeck? I’m just kidding, but people talk a lot about holograms. It’s really more talk than functionality. Either they’re captured within a box, or you can only look at them from a particular angle. So it would be exciting to see a realistic application of a hologram with cool capabilities.

There’s a company called The Void, which tries to blend the tactile with the virtual reality to address some of the challenges I mentioned earlier about incorporating other senses. They get a large space and set it up with all of these structures. But then the entire thing is mapped within a virtual environment, and your location is pinpointed by GPS or beacons within that large space. So you go through a virtual reality experience—but unlike most VR, if you lean up against a virtual tree, there’s actually a column there where you feel it against your back. So they’re trying to bridge that gap between the lack of sensory information for your physical senses in a virtual realm, while still trying to make it as immersive as possible.

That’s a really interesting seed of where things can go, but I think it’s going to quite a while before that’s really in a place where it can be incorporated successfully into a museum environment.

RV: Anything where you’re combining digital with physical objects, activity and technology is exciting to visitors. I think that RFID, which is basically a personalization software and hardware that knows where you are, is the key to that. It stores your answers and activities on a database—any kind of technology in the museum—and it tracks it and it sends it back to you and gives you feedback.

And I think that is just at the very beginning, even though it’s been around for a while. It’s starting to be used in more original ways and add real value to the exhibit experience. It can also be useful and effective for staying connected to visitors after the experience. A website can become a centralized hub for exhibit content and other activities. You can also find out your score and learn more detailed aspects of the contents of your exhibit. It can also be used as a marketing tool for repeat visitors.

Combining apps that are out in the world, bringing people back to the museums, and making it more like a community will probably happen in the future. I think everything’s about better integration in the future.

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